A colleague calls Capt. Lee Joon-seok the nicest person on the ship. Yet there he was, captured in video on the day his ferry sank, onshore while hundreds of people were trapped inside the vessel.
Lee had more than 40 years’ experience at sea and could speak with eloquence about the romance and danger of a life spent on ships. But his reputation now hinges on the moments last week when he delayed an evacuation and apparently left the ferry Sewol on one of the first rescue boats, leaving more than 300 people missing or dead, most of them teenagers.
“He was generous, a really nice guy,” Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, said of a boss who always asked about his wife and kids and was happy to dispense personal and professional advice. “He was probably the nicest person on the ship.”
Lee and eight members of his crew have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. On Saturday, the handcuffed captain was paraded before flashing cameras, his face hidden beneath the dark hood of a windbreaker. He brusquely denied fleeing the ship, without elaborating, and said he delayed evacuation because of worries about sending passengers into cold waters and fast currents before rescuers arrived.
The fall from grace stands in stark contrast to Lee’s striking portrayal, in interviews given to local media over the last decade, of a resilient and adventurous life spent at sea. It gives a chilling irony to his appearance on a 2010 travel show aired on cable broadcaster OBS, where he captained the Ohamana, another ferry that traveled the same Incheon-to-Jeju route plied by the Sewol.
“For those who are using our Incheon-to-Jeju ferry, I can tell you that the next time you return, it will be a safe and pleasant” experience, Lee said, dressed in a white captain’s uniform with gold epaulets on the shoulders. If you follow the instructions of our crew members, it will be safer than any other means of transportation.”
Lee, 68, began his life at sea by chance, landing a job on a ship in his mid-20s. He worked on ocean freighters for the next 20 years before becoming a ferry captain, he said in a 2004 interview with Jeju Today, a Web-based news organization. He was then captain of another Incheon-to-Jeju ferry.
“The first ship I sailed on was a hardwood ship that flipped over in waters near Okinawa, Japan. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces saved me with their helicopters,” Lee recalled. “If I hadn’t been saved then, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Lee said there were times he thought about giving up sailing.
“When I got caught in a storm at sea, I told myself I continued…